Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says ‘we should be excited about automation’

By Adi Robertson

Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Athena Film Festival

New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes that people should welcome robots taking their jobs — but not the economic system that can make it financially devastating. During a talk at SXSW, an audience member asked Ocasio-Cortez about the threat of automated labor. “We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she said in response. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

The congresswoman referenced a proposal from Bill Gates, who has discussed a tax on robots that replace human workers. (While she stated that Gates suggested taxing robots at 90 percent, that’s not a number we’ve found in his statements.) Gates isn’t the only person who’s floated a robot tax. French politician Benoît Hamon suggested taxing automated productivity gains and using the money for a universal basic income. More generally, large parts of Silicon Valley support basic incomes as a fix for automated unemployment.

Nobody’s specifically implemented an automation tax so far, though. In 2017, the European Parliament rejected a proposal that would tax robots and use the money to re-train workers, arguing that it would slow innovation. Ocasio-Cortez argued that a “robot tax” might just be a less politically charged way to propose higher taxes on businesses. “What [Gates is] really talking about is taxing corporations,” she said. “But it’s easier to say: ‘tax a robot.’” And while Gates’s vision involves freeing up humans to take other jobs, Ocasio-Cortez downplayed paid work altogether.

“We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in,” she said. “Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.”

Her description isn’t as utopian as something like the dream of “fully automated luxury communism,” but it’s also not nearly as dour as some calls for universal basic income, which have framed the policy as a sad inevitability of automation. That said, Ocasio-Cortez has previously criticized how automated systems practically operate, noting that human biases can be baked into an AI’s equations.

Ocasio-Cortez didn’t put forward a specific plan for dealing with automation at SXSW. But her answer placed it in the familiar context of a larger fight against economic inequality and corporate greed. “We should be working the least amount we’ve ever worked, if we were actually paid based on how much wealth we were producing,” she said. “But we’re not. We’re paid on how little we’re desperate enough to accept. And then the rest is skimmed off and given to a billionaire.”